A yes. There it was on Friday. My paycheck, complete with our new tax rate. A big chunk of change less than what I have been getting. Yep, there are only two certainties in life: Death and Taxes.
But I don’t really feel the same soul-consuming ire about taxes that a lot of my fellow Americans are feeling right now. For one, taxes have a purpose. They support the common good. For another, taxes in Europe are much higher than they are in America (and a lot of us would do well to remember that!). But more than anything, taxes nowadays are a whole lot more reliable and accountable than they were in the Middle Ages.
Taxes were a given in the Middle Ages. And no, people didn’t like them much. A chunk of the Robin Hood legend is about rebellion over taxes. Robin Hood had a good point. Taxes in the Middle Ages were not consistent, they were not well-regulated, and in a lot of instances they just plain weren’t fair.
Medieval taxes were a direct result of the feudal system. A lord offered his protection and governance to his people in exchange for their military service and production. Whether that was a king providing a military presence for his barons or an individual lord providing clothing and food and solving disputes in exchange for labor in his fields, the relationship was firmly understood and unbendable.
It was also a little unpredictable. If, for example, a king wanted to raise an army to attack his neighbors one year, suddenly all of these “taxes” would go up. Men would be pulled from their lives and thrust into armor and shuttled off to parts unknown, possibly never to return. The lord would need to pay for his service, so he would demand more revenue from his serfs to pay for it. The serfs would suddenly find themselves in a position of owing more and working harder without warning or recourse. Kind of makes the $20 I was missing out of my paycheck look like a walk in the park.
But it wasn’t just the sudden need for revenue that hit medieval people in their wallets. Every year peasants had to pay taxes to their lords. There was an annual plow tax and a tax to use the lord’s mill. Depending on where you were and when you lived, there were taxes that needed to be paid when people married and taxes to be paid when people died. Not to mention the fact that a large percentage of the produce of the land that peasants cultivated went straight to their lord’s purse and not their own.
In a very real way, if you were a peasant in the Middle Ages, your king owned you. Puts taxes in a new perspective, doesn’t it.
Of course, as with a lot of other things, the system was tweaked in the High Middle Ages. It was an age of prosperity. Economies throughout Europe were healthy and growing. New lands were being reclaimed from the forests and marshes and settled. More revenue! The prosperity extended to everyone. Gradually you ended up with a situation where the defining tax of the day was scutage.
Scutage was the cash tax that a vassal paid to their lord instead of providing labor. It extended from wealthy peasants paying their lord instead of working their land for them to lords paying the king instead of bundling all of their sons off to fight bloody wars. (Although there was still a heck of a lot of glory in warfare and plenty of nobles volunteering for the job) Somebody at some point probably complained about scuttage. Maybe the fees were getting too high or they didn’t like the causes it was going to support. But the tax was a whole lot better than what happened when it disappeared.
In the fourteenth century, after the economy tanked, famine swept the land, and the Black Death decimated populations, labor was in greater demand than cash. So lords all over the place tried to do away with scutage and to reinstate labor as payment of feudal dues. Well, to make a long story short, it didn’t work. Vassals weren’t having it. Prices and wages were out of control. Economies were turned inside-out. And the Middle Ages ended. It was a whole new world, done in by tax laws.
So what can we learn from this turbulent episode of the Middle Ages as we face our own taxes? Well, for one, it’s not the end of the world to pay your government money. No one likes to do it, but at least they aren’t marching into your house demanding you suit up and fight or go work in the fields 40% of the year. In the modern world we have more of a say in how our taxes work because we can vote for people and laws that would change things. And whether you agree with where it goes or not, our tax money does legitimately help our neighbors. Even though rates may rise and fall, no country could suddenly impose a massive tax on its people that would leave them destitute, not without provoking a major revolution.
And so I sigh and shake my head at my paycheck and recalculate my budget, all the while thinking, “At least I don’t have to pay to use the plow.”